Protect Your Magic: A Survival Guide for Journalists of Color

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There’s an awakening among journalists of color in public media: The racist and sexist incidents that many of us have privately endured aren’t anomalies. They’re systemic.

We’ve known this anecdotally for some time. We have whisper networks devoted to believing and supporting each other as we fight to make our voices heard in an industry where many of us feel unwanted.

In the past few weeks, I’ve felt overwhelmed by my anger. I am angry at the complicity of newsroom executives who talk about diversity in hiring while doing nothing about retention. I am incredulous at the business reasons for favoring one brilliant jerk’s career over the productivity of dozens of women.

The proof is in how little NPR’s dismal diversity numbers change year over year. At the local level, the proof is in the all-white newsrooms that cover minority majority regions. Undeniably, there is something rotten in the system.

Many of us have focused our efforts on the “pipeline problem” — a favorite excuse of hiring managers who are unwilling to expand their networks and challenge their biases. Our padrino — godfather — is Doug Mitchell, the founder of NPR’s Next Generation Radio. Since 2000, Next Generation has been pairing journalism students with professional journalists in workshops all over the country. I had been a mentor for Next Generation twice and was gearing up for round three when news stories broke about abuse at NPR, WNYC, WBUR and MPR.

In light of the reports, I reached out to Mitchell. I told him I was feeling ambivalent about continuing to mentor students of color for our industry. I asked him, “In training young people of color and women for public media, are we just teeing them up to be abused?” I hadn’t even met my mentee yet and I was already imagining getting a call from her in three years, hearing her tell me “something bad happened.”

In typical fashion, Mitchell responded to my question with a homework assignment. He told me the time had come to give our students an additional form of training. Since I would be one of the six women mentors at our project in January at the University of Houston, he asked me to lead a candid discussion with our students. I accepted the assignment without any idea of what I was going to say.

I knew that if I wanted to avoid discouraging our students from pursuing careers in media, I’d have to leave my anger at the door. I decided to emulate the tone of conflict reporting training, since maintaining your creativity in a hostile work environment can feel like a daily battle.

I opened my reporting notebook and started making phone calls.

I talked to Amy Gastelum, Lewis Wallace, Andrew Ramsammy and Luis Clemens. It was Wallace who taught me the phrase “preserve your magic” — borrowed from Nick Daily, who is a dean of black affairs at the Claremont University Consortium. I subconsciously changed “preserve” to “protect” after reading conflict reporting guides and I decided to keep it. Gastelum teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School, where she candidly talks about these issues with her students. “I wish we didn’t have to do this” Gastelum said, “but they can handle it.”

Clemens was my advocate at NPR during my Kroc fellowship and has been my mentor ever since. The founding editor of NPR’s Code Switch, Clemens has been fighting for representation and inclusion in our industry throughout his career. He’s taught me many valuable lessons over the years. For this presentation, he told me to never forget the fact that “this is a really freaking cool job.” His words inspired me to ground the discussion in joy. Andrew Ramsammy consults public media organizations on diversity issues. Ramsammy encouraged me to add the final slide about mental health and asked me to tell our students to “be an active participant in your own success.”

If you haven’t had a chance to look at the slideshow at the top of this story, I encourage you to do so and then read the thoughts behind each one.

SLIDE 1: I organized our thoughts into a publicly available slidedeck that anyone can present. I hope it helps facilitators kick off thoughtful conversations that empower young journalists. If you use it in a professional capacity, please let me know how it went.

SLIDE 2: I started the presentation by asking everyone in the room to put their devices away and close their eyes. I led the group in a guided meditation. “Think about all the little things that make your voice special,” I said. “The flourishes that make you a unique storyteller, all the things that let me know, even before I see your byline that a story is YOUR story. The people in your community who build you up, the ways you code switch between different worlds, your sense of humor. Okay now take all the these things and fuse them together into a ball of energy right in front of your heart. Hold it. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Keep holding it. Acknowledge it, Thank it.”

SLIDE 3: “That ball of energy is your magic. We are all here because we see your magic. We believe in your magic and its ability to change the world.”

SLIDE 4: “Our relationship with you doesn’t end on Friday. We’re your new network for life. Our goal for you is to get you to a workplace where people value your magic. At this point in your career, the determinant in your success is having access to a good editor who believes in you. An entry-level job should pay you a living wage, you should have the space to have a life outside of the newsroom and be given the opportunity to grow your career.”

SLIDE 5: “Maria Hinojosa asks every young journalist she works with what their ‘Dream-O-Vision’ is. ‘I can’t help you if I don’t know what the Dream-O-Vision is,’ she tells them. Your first, second or third job is probably not going to be your dream job, but it’s a step on the Dream-O-Vision ladder. Maybe you decided to take a GA reporter position even though you dream about hosting Marketplace. It’s not your dream, but you are going to acquire skills that are going to take you one step closer. Maybe you’ll have to work an overnight shift every once in a while. When you start out your job won’t be perfect, but it should make sense in the story of who you want to be. Build up your personal board of advisors — a group of mentors that you routinely check in with. Work on cultivating a strong group of people who see your magic and will be a source of advice throughout your career.”

SLIDE 6: “Paying your dues never means being the victim of abuse: verbal, emotional, sexual, whatever. If you find yourself being victimized, it’s never your fault. Tell your network ASAP and we’ll figure out a plan to get you out of there. If you follow trade news, you know that some very ugly secrets have been coming to light. People like us have been working toward a public media system that is inclusive and fair for everybody, but the truth is we’re not there yet. The rest of this presentation is going to be about how to keep your magic safe.”

SLIDE 7: “If you were reporting on a story, you would never go into a scene cold, right? You’d find out everything you could before actually going out on the field — why would you do anything different for your career? Do your research. Become a LinkedIn sleuth. Find people who used to work at the workplace you are looking at. If you see a bunch of people who did brief stints there — under a year — that’s a bad sign. If you see another person of color who worked there for a short period in the near past, reach out to them. Find out what happened.”

“During the interview process: Be polite, but also ask a lot of questions. If the manager wants to hire an actual journalist, they’ll be impressed. Here are some questions you might ask: What happened to the last person who held the position you are applying for, or if it’s a new position, why was this position created? What happens to people who take entry-level jobs at that workplace? Do they get promoted internally or do they leave? What kind of career development opportunities are going to be available to you? Has that development been available to others, and if so, can you talk to them about it? Don’t just take their word for it. Will you be able to go to conferences and apply to trainings and workshops? Will they help you pitch your work to outside editors? If they tell you you can pursue these opportunities on your own time, or that you’ll need to take vacation days for career development, that is a huge red flag. Keep your eyes peeled throughout the interview process. Are you going to be the ‘only one?’ What happened to the last ‘only one?’ Forget that you really need the job for a minute and take off your rose-colored glasses. The dynamics you see during the interview process will come back to haunt you if you take the job. Is the manager disorganized? How does the manager treat the receptionist? Does the manager make you feel comfortable? Write your impressions down at the end of the day and debrief with your mentors. That’s what we’re here for.”

“Here’s a little secret: You don’t have to take every job that you’re offered. Trust your gut. I know a young reporter that turned down the only entry-level reporter position in his city because the manager seemed like a jerk. Instead, he worked part-time as a substitute teacher and lived with his parents while he got his freelance career off the ground. His stories got the attention of a fellowship committee at CUNY — he ended up getting a full ride to the journalism graduate school.”

SLIDE 8: “Once you do find an opportunity that seems like a good fit, talk to your mentors about what an appropriate entry-level salary looks like for that market and make sure you get it. Don’t listen to your mom on this one — you should not just be grateful that they are offering you a position. Don’t be shy about negotiating your salary; it shows that you value yourself. Managers expect that you’ll negotiate a higher salary, many times they are not allowed to pay you more money until you ask. Before you accept the offer, get your job description in writing. This is the start of the documentation you’ll do throughout your tenure at that workplace. It’s a good thing to have in case you ever need to reference it. If in the future your manager wants you to do something that isn’t in the job description, you can negotiate a different title and/or salary. Ask your manager how you are going to be evaluated, with what frequency and on what metrics. This will define what success will look for you internally and will give you a solid foundation to make the case for a promotion and a raise. Get that in writing.”

SLIDE 9: “On the job, get as many things as you can in writing, over email. This is helpful if you have a manager that forgets things or changes their mind easily. As a journalist, you should be journaling every day for your forthcoming memoir, but at the very least you need to take contemporaneous notes when something weird happens. Write it down, using full names and dates. And when something makes you uncomfortable, talk to people you trust about it. In many cases it’s better to talk to people outside of your workplace about it. Lucky you — you have a big network of people who have your back.”

SLIDE 10: “You don’t have to be the office diversity warrior (if you don’t want to be). At this stage, put your career first. You need to acquire social capital in this industry before you can shake it up. So be thoughtful. As a person of color, sometimes you get labeled as a ‘problem’ for speaking out. You might start getting dinged for performance reasons that aren’t really a big deal. Depending on the workplace, going to HR isn’t always the best idea. Many times they are there to protect the employer, not you. But don’t be discouraged — there are small, meaningful ways you can start to make change. You can mentor interns. When someone says something biased you can ask ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘Why do you think that?’ When someone crosses the line, you can say ‘That wasn’t very kind’ or ‘That wasn’t very professional’ and walk away. There are ways of clearly state your boundaries and expectations without being perceived as ‘aggressive.’  Acknowledge that you are going to brush up against conflict. You can decide how you will react right now.”

SLIDE 11: “Most jobs are like lily pads, you’re not going to stay there forever. Most people stay in the same job for two years before moving on, either to another position at the same organization or to another workplace altogether. Figure out what you need to do to get to that next step. If you see a posting for a dream job you’re not qualified for yet, see if you can set up an informational interview with that manager. Ask what you need to accomplish before getting a job like that in the future. You might be surprised; that hiring manager could become a future mentor. Get outside feedback on your work. Freelancing stories allows you the opportunity to network and work with editors with different management styles. Apply to workshops and go to journalism conferences. Many cities have monthly ‘listening lounges’ where you can get constructive feedback about your work. You can also train your loved ones to listen to your work with a critical ear — ask them to tell you when they found their attention wavering, when they felt bored.”

SLIDE 12: “Be your own stage mom. Don’t isolate yourself. Document all the great things you do and talk to people about it. Make time to walk the floor of your workplace every week. Get to know what everybody does and make sure they know what you’re capable of. I had a colleague who emailed our GM every time he made a Storify. Do you know how easy it is to make a Storify? Make sure your professional website and your LinkedIn are up to date. Apply for journalism awards and fellowships. Email your work to your mentors every couple of months to get their feedback.”

SLIDE 13: “Find communities that nourish your spirit outside of your workplace. Community can take many different shapes. You need to have people who see your magic outside of your professional capacity. Have a group of people that you can vent to. As journalists, we tend to really wrap up our identity with our work, and that’s not healthy. Whether you get 10 Peabodies or nobody ever knows your name, your self-worth needs to be exactly the same. This will help you navigate career changes. Believe in the strength of your community, that’s your safety net and your trust fund. When many of us moved away from home our families said ‘Baby, you can always come home.’ That’s how we journalist of color in public media work — we have each other’s backs.”

SLIDE 14: As a storyteller, there is nothing more important than your mental health: You can’t be creative if you’re not healthy. Focus on cultivating a rich internal life. It takes a lot of work to realize that we are small characters in other people’s lives; the way that people react to you often has very little to do with you. It is not selfish to take care of yourself. For some of us, being disciplined means knowing when to take time to stop working for the day. Self-care means different things for different people. Therapy. Church. Meditation. Medication. Figure out what you need to keep yourself healthy and productive.

* * *

“Protect Your Magic” was our first session of the workshop and it set a great tone for the rest of the week. We took time after the presentation to discuss the thoughts and feelings it provoked.

Next Gen mentor Crystal Chavez is a host and reporter at WMFE in Orlando. “I have rarely met a  POC journalist who hasn’t experienced some type of discrimination in the newsroom, ranging from cultural incompetency to racism,” Chavez said. “It’s heartening that we are being proactive in getting students to think about how they would want to react should they encounter such a situation in the workplace.”

Houston Chronicle reporter Monica Rhor also served as a mentor on the project. “The presentation reminded me of the power we bring to our jobs, to the industry, to the stories we write because of who we are as journalists of color,” Rhor said. “It reminded me that protecting that magic is crucial to protecting my very important voice.”

The students felt empowered by our conversation. “I have often been called overly confident and too spicy when trying to be my own stage mom,” Alejandra Martinez said. “After the ‘protect your magic’ presentation I will say I am valuable and my magic is one of a kind.”

“I’ve had a terrible habit of measuring my value as a person based on my work,” Rafa Farihah said. “Now, I know to protect my magic and make sure to find a way to keep it alive.”

My mentee, Antréchelle Dorsey, felt so inspired by our conversation that she started a hashtag. She told me to expect my #ProtectYourMagic T-shirt in the mail.

* * *

About Next Gen
NPR’s Next Generation Radio is a digital-first journalism training project designed to find and develop college students and early career professionals for careers in public media. Founded in 2000, it began by going to national minority journalism conferences and doing radio projects there. Always innovative, the program has been posting content to the web since it started. Even 18 years ago, students understood the future and it was the internet. Also back then, stations didn’t want to put students on the air, so the program went online.

Now, in 2018, the program is sponsored by NPR, NPR member stations and U.S. colleges and universities. The program is more directly helping stations find their future employees from talent pools that are right under their noses.

“The Talk” during our Next Gen project adds to a guiding principle. If someone is selected to the program, they are now part of the family.

It means:

  • That when they write or call, those emails, texts or voicemails are returned, promptly.
  • That any and all career strategy discussion are had.
  • That any time they are in a workplace situation they do not know how to handle, they have a mentor ready to help them through it.
  • That we are ready to sponsor them.
  • That we have their backs. They were chosen for a reason.

By the numbers
In 2017, Next Gen selected 57 students and early career professionals for its 10 projects. Twenty-two of those participants landed or changed jobs or internships in public media. In 2016, 49 people were chosen for our eight projects; 11 landed jobs or internships in public media.


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